Introduction, Design Features
Even if you’ve never heard of Alienware’s computers before (and if not, welcome back from your round trip to Alpha Centauri), you’d have to assume, from the name alone, that they’d look a bit different than your average PC.
That’s been true of nearly every Alienware we remember reviewing, and especially so with the 2017-refreshed Alienware 15 R3, which just beamed onto our doorstep. You can configure this 15.6-inch beastie from an $1,199 base model, all the way up to $3,399, depending on how you load it out. That wide price range makes it a viable competitor to just about every 15.6-inch gaming notebook you can buy.
Indeed, the market for 15.6-inch gaming notebooks is a hotbed of activity, even if it’s not quite as jam-packed with competition as the one for 17.3-inchers, which is white-hot. Our Alienware 15 R3 test unit came configured with a fast 120Hz display supporting Nvidia G-Sync, an Intel Core i7-7700HQ “Kaby Lake” quad-core processor, a mobile 8GB version of the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070Gigabyte P35XAcer Predator 15MSI GT62VR Dominator Pro, to name just a few.
For a price comparison, we mock-configured these laptops to match our Alienware 15 R3 as closely as possible. The Gigabyte P35X ran about $100 less, but it had half the SSD space, while the MSI GT62VR Dominator Pro was lower-priced still, at $1,799, as was the Acer Predator 15. (Those machines also had half the SSD storage space of our Alienware tester unit.) However, that’s not to say the Alienware 15 R3 lacks for extra value. It has a few tricks in its sci-fi-style case, most notably its special 120Hz display, fancy AlienFX LED lighting system, and some of the best port connectivity and build quality that we’ve seen from a gaming notebook this size.
The Alienware 15 R3 is also fully configurable from the factory, unlike all of the competitors we mentioned here. Finally, it can be hooked up to a custom-matched external graphics solution via the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, which could extend the gaming lifespan of the notebook quite a bit. Let’s take a closer look.
Mistaking the LED-riddled and alien-infused exterior of the Alienware 15 R3 for anything but an Alienware is kind of like mistaking a family sedan for a Corvette. It just doesn’t happen.
The Alienware 15 R3 looks every bit like an evolution of the company’s past notebooks, and in a positive way. The design theme has matured over the years; we think the backlit “Alienware” text beneath the display gives it a high-end look, and the lid back is more elegant than earlier, curvier designs.
It can take a leap of faith to like the alien-head logo on the back of the lid and on the power button, but they’re small. The backlighting behind both of them can be turned off, making them less noticeable.
The straight and squared-off edges on most the Alienware 15 R3’s exterior suggest a stealth aircraft. The protruding rear exhaust-vent section looks especially menacing. That protrusion makes the depth of this notebook a whopping 12 inches, from front to back, which is just as large as the Acer Predator 15. It’s almost 2 inches deeper than a typical non-gaming 15.6-inch notebook, as well. The 15.3-inch width is a little excessive, but its consistent 1-inch thickness is respectably thin for the kind of laptop this is.
The weight of this beast starts at 7.7 pounds; our test unit weighed in at 7.81 pounds. That extra weight is probably from the larger 99-watt-hour battery in our model; the standard battery is smaller, at 68 watt-hours.
Picking up the Alienware 15 R3 gives you the feeling it’s over-engineered. “Super-solid” is the only way to describe it. The metallic lid and bottom panel, which are both dark silver, feel cool and rigid. The chassis is all but inflexible. The surfaces that go around the keyboard don’t give one bit when pressing down on them, either. The lid’s hinges are stiff enough to prevent display wobble, but they still allow for one-handed opening. We liked the soft-touch surfaces on the exterior, too.
The AlienFX lighting system is, literally, one of the highlights of this notebook. You can turn it completely off, if you want, by pressing the Fn and F12 keyboard shortcut, but if you do that, you’ll be missing the show. There are 12 total lighting zones, each individually configurable with different colors and patterns.
The Basic mode in the pre-installed AlienFX software allows you to change the colors, while the Advanced mode lets you apply layered effects, such as colors that morph…
Alienware included many pre-set themes, including a “Sunrise” one that gradually changed the lighting effects across the notebook to simulate, well, you guessed it. A quick search online for AlienFX themes found a number of community-run Web sites that shared themes. You can create and store as many as you want, which isn’t always a given.
Beyond just looking pretty, AlienFX can be functional. The software allows you to set up events that change the lights, such as an incoming mail message. AlienFX also integrates with an extensive list of games to show in-game events or statuses.
We think the AlienFX lighting is fantastically well done. This feature gives the Alienware 15 R3 the ability to instantly change its appearance in a way that suits your preferences. No other notebook we know of has a lighting system this extensive. On competing notebooks that have any form of customizable lighting (which is a short list to begin with), it’s usually just the ability to turn on and off a few minor areas. Needless to say, the Alienware 15 R3 is in a class of its own in this regard. All it’s missing is a per-key RGB LED keyboard, like the one on the Aorus X7 v6, but the Alienware’s four-zone keyboard backlighting is advanced enough. Remember, AlienFX is standard even on the base $1,199 model.
We’re not entirely disappointed with the lack of a number pad on this machine. Without one, the main keyboard area is centered within the chassis, with plenty of room to fit a column of full-size dedicated gaming macro keys down the left edge…
Software for macro creation, dubbed “AlienTactX,” comes pre-installed. The editor is basic; of course, you can record keystrokes, and the delays between them. On the five available macro keys, three profiles can be stored on each, giving you a total of 15 possible macros accessible at any given time via these shortcuts. You can import and export profiles, though it would have been nice to have just a list of profiles that you can load without having to browse for a file. To switch between loaded profiles, simply press the top key on the macro-key column. The column’s keys conveniently change color to indicate the current profile.
The keyboard itself has a gratifyingly standard layout. The arrow-key cluster is divorced out, with close to full-size keys, though it doesn’t top the Acer Predator 15 in this regard. Dedicated Home and End keys reside at the upper right, while the Page Up and Page Down keys straddle the up-arrow key. Media-shortcut key combos are accessible within the function-key row (F1 through F12) by pressing the Fn key in conjunction. The Fn and F6 combo disables the Windows key, while Fn and F12 turns off the AlienFX exterior lighting.
One subtle nuance is that the space bar is shorter than expected. Its left side extends only halfway into the C key, instead of all the way to the left edge of that key. We noticed this while playing traditional first-person shooters that use the WASD key cluster for movement. If you reach to hit the space bar with your left thumb, you might find yourself hitting the space bar and left-Alt keys. We were able to adjust to this easily enough.
The 2.2mm of key travel on this keyboard allows for smooth, enjoyable feedback. The rock-solid keyboard support deck, and the slight cushioning at the bottom of the keystroke, further enhanced the overall feel. We also appreciated the fact that the keys were uncannily quiet. Moreover, the anti-glare finish on the keys provided plenty of grip.
The AlienFX keyboard backlighting control is integrated into the AlienFX software. The main keyboard is divided up evenly into four vertical zones, while the macro-key column is a fifth zone. Each zone can be changed to its own color, or turned off entirely. As we noted earlier, it can also be set in Advanced mode to morph between colors, or to generate other patterns.
The lighting quality looked great to us, with all symbols on the keys being backlit, and gently shining around the edges of the keys for complete visibility in the dark. There’s enough luminance for daytime visibility, as well.
Thanks to the keyboard not having a number pad, the touch pad is also positioned dead-center in the palm rest. On notebooks with number pads, the touch pad is usually offset to the left and lined up with the space bar, preventing your palms from touching the touch pad’s surface while typing. We enjoyed the touch pad’s tactile anti-glare surface, and appreciated its well-defined edges. The two soft-touch buttons have an excellent feel, and a quiet clicking action. It looks, overall, rather ordinary for a touch pad, at least until you actually touch it. The surface illuminates as AlienFX lighting zone No. 8 when you do, and it stays lit for a couple of seconds after you stop touching it. The surface can be any color you want via the AlienFX software.
Dell/Alienware offers three display choices on the Alienware 15 R3. The base display is a full-HD IPS panel with wide viewing angles and a 1080p native resolution (1,920×1,080 pixels). It also has an anti-glare surface. A 4K (3,840×2,160-pixel) panel is also an option, likewise with wide viewing angles. The one on our Alienware 15 R3 review unit is the third choice, and without doubt the best one for gaming. It has a 1080p resolution like the base panel, but a 120Hz refresh rate. This means up to 120 frames per second (fps) can be displayed without tearing, as opposed to just 60fps for the 60Hz refresh rate in the base 1080p panel.
The higher panel refresh rate makes a difference when you equip the Alienware 15 R3 with the GeForce GTX 1070 graphics chip, as our tester was sent. This card is capable of churning out well above 60fps average in today’s games. The 120Hz panel, moreover, supports Nvidia G-Sync, to dynamically synchronize the fps output of the GPU with the screen’s refresh rate. In essence, you’ll need to invest in a pricey, gaming-specific desktop monitor if you want a smoother gaming experience than what this panel offers.
The caveat with the 120Hz panel on the Alienware 15 R3 is that it has limited viewing angles. It looks fine from side-to-side, but you can see the colors invert and wash out if you tilt the display too far back. This isn’t a major concern for gamers, as they’ll be looking at the display head-on in nearly every circumstance, and they’ll be the only ones looking most of the time. We did like the fact the Alienware 15 R3’s display can be tilted back 180 degrees from closed. But if, perchance, you’d be using this as both a gaming and a presentation-giving laptop, you’ll want one of the other two panels.
Despite its limited viewing angles, the display on our review unit had lively colors and outstanding brightness. Dell rates its luminance at 400 nits, which is about one-third higher than what we would normally consider a bright display on a notebook. The anti-glare surface is effective at keeping reflections to a minimum.
Port selection is one of the standout aspects of the Alienware 15 R3. Not only does this notebook have a good variety of ports, but it also places them in sensible locations. On the left edge, you’ll find a headphone/microphone combination jack, a dedicated microphone jack, a USB Type-A 3.0 port, and a trimmer USB Type-C 3.0 port. A thermal vent and Noble-style cable-lockdown notch are further to the left, and AlienFX lighting zone No. 9 runs underneath the bottom (the lit stripe).
The right edge holds a USB Type-A 3.0 port, another thermal exhaust vent, and AlienFX lighting zone No. 10.
The rest of the ports are located, notably, along the back edge of the chassis. We say “notably” because it is the trend on modern notebooks to place ports on the sides. We suppose it ultimately comes down to preference, though we can see the argument for back-mounted ports on a notebook this size. On thin-and-light notebooks that are likely to be used in confined spaces, such as on airplane trays and on laps, side-mounted ports are easier to see and reach. But with larger notebooks that will spend most of their working lives atop a desk or table, having the ports on the back of the chassis keeps anything plugged in back there out of sight.
Besides the thermal vents flanking either side, the back edge of the Alienware 15 R3 holds the Killer E2500 Gigabit Ethernet jack, a mini-DisplayPort connector, an HDMI 2.0 video-out, a USB Type-C port with Thunderbolt 3 support, the Alienware Graphics Amplifier port, and the AC power jack…
The one omission on the Alienware 15 R3 is a SD card reader. USB-based ones are cheap enough, but nothing beats one that’s built-in.
The speakers are along the front edge of the chassis. We found the volume of sound they could put out was impressive, but the overall sound quality was subpar. Distortion quickly crept in as we increased the volume past 50 percent. The mid-tones sounded harsh and recessed, and the bass was unimpressive.
The headset jack on the left side of the chassis is a good alternative to using the speakers. It was static-free. The amount of power it provided seemed almost excessive; we found 25 percent volume with our closed headphones was enough to max them out. We had to set the volume to 60 percent on an Apple iPhone 6 to hit an equivalent level of volume.
Internally, the Alienware 15 R3 offers a choice between a Killer 1435 and a Killer 1535 wireless card, with our review unit having the latter. The 1535 card is advertised to have better range, though we didn’t test this. Both cards support almost identical technologies, including the latest 802.11ac wireless standard. Bluetooth 4.1 wireless is also standard on the Alienware 15 R3.
The Alienware 15 R3 houses a pair of cameras above its display. One of them is a traditional Webcam. We weren’t too impressed with that, as it had average recording quality, and just a 720p/30fps resolution. It should work fine for casual video chat.
The other camera is an infrared (IR) model, which is standard equipment. This allows the Alienware 15 R3 to support Windows Hello facial recognition in Windows 10, making it one of the few gaming notebooks we’ve seen with built-in biometric capability. The IR camera furthermore supports Tobii eye-tracking technology—to an extent.
The pre-installed Tobii software has settings that allow you to control some of the Alienware 15 R3’s behavior simply with your eyes; the IR camera is able to detect your eyes. For example, if you get up and leave your computer, the IR camera will sense that, and turn off the computer’s screen and AlienFX lighting system. When you sit back down at the computer and look at the top of the screen, the Tobii feature automatically turns everything back on within a few seconds. What it does is user-configurable, and of course, the eye-tracker can be completely disabled.
Note that the Alienware 15 R3 doesn’t support Tobii eye-tracking in games, however, the application for which the Tobii technology has typically been flogged. For that, you need to step up to the bigger Alienware 17, which has the full Tobii eye-tracker hardware and software built-in.
As we tapped out this review, Alienware 15 R3 configurations on Dell’s Web site ranged in price from $1,199, all the way up to an imposing $3,399. The base model offers an Intel Core i5-7300HQ quad-core processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB graphics card, 8GB of RAM, and a 1TB hard drive. Those specs are a tad scanty for that price, by our measure; you can get that amount of performance for less than four figures with the Lenovo Legion Y520, as well as in Dell’s own Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming (7567). Neither notebook packs the high-end feature set of the Alienware 15 R3, though, nor includes as good of a display.
The $1,499 configuration we saw on the site, to our eyes, looked like the best overall value. It bumps up the base model’s specs to a Core i7-7700HQ CPU and GeForce GTX 1060 6GB graphics, doubles the RAM to 16GB, and adds a 128GB SSD.
The $2,274 of our review unit further bumped up the specs: the GeForce GTX 1070 8GB GPU (the fastest offered in the Alienware 15 R3), along with a larger 512GB SSD, and, of course, the 120Hz 1080p display. As we mentioned earlier, the battery is also larger, at 99Wh, versus 68Wh in the lower-end models. The rest of the feature set is largely the same. The IR camera with Windows Hello biometric support is included even in the base model, as is the AlienFX lighting.
The Alienware 15 R3 supports a maximum of 32GB of memory via its two DIMM slots. We’d like to see four slots in a notebook this size, but it’s hard to make an argument for “needing” more than what this notebook offers. Our review unit had a comfortable 16GB of RAM in a two-8GB DIMM configuration, running in dual-channel model. It was of mild interest that the RAM ran at DDR4-2666 speeds, whereas we typically see DDR4-2400. You won’t feel a difference with the faster RAM in day-to-day usage, but extra speed never hurts.
The ample storage expansion is a plus on the Alienware 15 R3. Inside the chassis are two M.2 Type-2280 slots and a single Type-2240 slot for SSDs, plus a traditional 2.5-inch drive bay. One of the M.2 Type-2280 slots was occupied by a 512GB Samsung PCI Express-bus drive in our review unit, while a 1TB, 7,200rpm hard drive presided over the 2.5-inch bay.
GPU overclocking isn’t offered on the Alienware 15 R3. This is in contrast to the Acer Predator 15, which does support overclocking from the factory. Our experience says factory overclocking usually results in only minor performance gains, at best, but it’s better than not having any.
Getting at the internals in this notebook is straightforward. Removing the seven Phillips-head screws under the chassis allows the entire one-piece bottom panel to come off…
Here you can see the populated M.2 Type-2280 slot at the upper right, and the other M.2 Type-2280 and the M.2 Type-2240 slot below and to its right. The two DIMM slots for memory and the 2.5-inch drive on the left side are simple to access. Putting the bottom cover back on requires finesse, as the angled front of the cover makes it tough to get all the clips up there secured. Take your time.
As you can see in the photo above, two fans are on either side of the chassis. Most of the exhaust air escapes through vents in the rear, but some also goes through smaller openings out the sides of the chassis. We liked how, except while gaming or running very demanding tasks, the Alienware 15 R3’s fans stayed off, or ran so quietly that we didn’t notice them.
If you’re gaming with the Alienware 15 R3 in a place where quiet matters, you’re likely to attract a few glances in your direction. (That’s not to say people won’t give you a glance or two, anyway, the way the Alienware 15 R3 looks.) We noted some not-ignorable fan whine at the top fan speeds, adding to the sound of air rushing quickly through the cooling vents. The sound carries across a medium-size room. While gaming, we thought this notebook was noticeably louder than the competing MSI GT62VR Dominator Pro, as well as the Acer Predator 15. The Gigabyte P35X v6 might have been a little louder still.
We found the overall noise level of the Alienware 15 R3 to be acceptable for a gaming notebook, relative to others we’ve tested. It’s not loud to the point where headphones won’t help (we’ve certainly tested machines like that before), but it won’t be ignorable in most situations. That’s, again, assuming you’re gaming. The fans on this notebook are otherwise well-behaved.
While gaming, the top of the chassis became toastier than we expected, peaking at 112 degrees F at the upper right, above the keyboard. The middle of the keyboard reached 109 degrees F, while the palm rest area stayed in the low-80-degree F range. The underside of the chassis peaked at 109 degrees F in the center, but it measured under 100 degrees F everywhere else. The notebook wasn’t uncomfortable to use; the plastic surfaces felt cooler than they were.
The internal component temperatures were all over the charts. On one hand, the GeForce GTX 1070 GPU reached just 70 degrees C, and that’s almost chilly for a high-performance notebook GPU. In the Gigabyte P35X v6, we observed the same GPU reaching 91 degrees C. However, the Core i7-7700HQ CPU in our Alienware 15 R3 tester reached 91 degrees C, not that far below the chip’s maximum rated operating temperature. The Alienware 15 R3 is far from the first notebook we’ve seen with a CPU that runs this hot; the Acer Predator 15 and Predator 17 also come to mind. We noticed no CPU-related performance problems with our Alienware 15 R3, but that doesn’t stop us from wishing for a little less heat.